Misc 15/10/2020

Catalonia’s devolved powers in university education

Catalonia has shown that it can build a leading university system on the back of home rule

Josep Domingo Ferrer
3 min
Estudiants al paraninf de l'edici històric de la Universitat de Barcelona

The line that separates the powers reserved to Spain’s central government from those devolved to the regions is very blurry and windy. This leads to spats between the two administrations, which are eventually resolved by the Constitutional Court. Depending on the judges that happen to be serving on the court’s panel, the pendulum swings more or less towards re-centralisation. What we have today is little more than a form of administrative de-centralisation where nothing can be taken for granted and everything is contingent. In contrast, in a federal country worthy of that name, the boundaries between the federal government and the states are typically clear and unquestionable: by virtue of the federal pact, the states have truly exclusive powers that the federal government cannot trample on. The power divide between the central government and the regional administrations can be equally clear even where there is no federal pact: in the UK Westminster has progressively devolved exclusive powers in some areas to the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If we focus on Scotland’s universities, for instance, we will find that the Scottish authorities are allowed to devise their own policies, almost independent of the rest of the UK. In particular, Scottish universities offer four-year degree courses with no tuition fees, whereas in England a degree is three years in length and the annual fees amount to 10,000€. Furthermore, it is up to the Scottish government to pass legislation that concerns Scotland’s universities. In contrast, the Catalan government merely funds Catalan universities and gets to set rules on issues where Madrid hasn’t done so already. In fact, Catalonia’s 2003 University Act (LUC in Catalan) —currently in force and passed under Catalan minister Andreu Mas-Colell— regulates what Spain’s LOU does not touch upon. In typically Napoleonic fashion, Madrid lays down the curriculum guidelines for degree courses across Spain and the LOU establishes how universities must be managed and the career ladder of tenured faculty. Fortunately, Spain’s LOU doesn’t go into detail in every instance and it actually allows universities to employ non-tenured teaching staff on fairly vague terms. The Catalan authorities used this loophole to establish three contract types (temporary lecturer, associate professor and tenured professor) and they also set up Catalonia’s AQU (University System Quality Agency), which —among other things— assesses whether a particular applicant is qualified to be employed within any of those contract categories.

The implementation of Catalonia’s LUC is a success story. First of all, Catalonia’s quality assurance system has been largely copied by Spain’s central government and, secondly, Catalan universities take Spain’s top spots in all international university rankings, although their score is still modest when measured against international universities. On the so-called Shanghai index, the UB and the UAB are Spain’s top two universities and, together with the UPF, they take the three top spots on the Times Higher Education ranking, even though they rank 183, 198 and 152, respectively, worldwide. There is no single reason to explain why Catalan universities lead the way in Spain, but there is no doubt that their teaching staff plays a significant role. They are configured in accordance with the LUC and staff are recruited following international excellence standards, for example by means of the Serra-Húnter scheme.

For some time now, Madrid has been readying a law on research and teaching staff that will amend some articles of the LOU. At first they claimed that they meant to apply Catalonia’s teaching model to the rest of Spain, but later drafts would seem to dispose of the Catalan model in Catalonia. The bill’s third draft, which was circulated in early October, regulates contract lecturers in the same detail and in the same manner as tenured professors, which renders Catalonia’s LUC useless as far as teaching staff is concerned. Furthermore, the recruitment process that the bill proposes for all teaching staff, tenured and not, is based on selecting most members of the recruitment panels randomly from a Spain-wide pool of possible members. This is hardly compatible with a truly international selection of teaching staff, like Catalan universities have been doing since 2013 through the Serra-Húnter scheme. Under this scheme, recruitment panels typically include two or even three members selected from the most prominent professors within the scientific field of the contract being offered. In addition, the draft bill strikes down the accreditation requirement for contract lecturers on temporary contracts. As most new lecturers tend to begin with this category, employing them with no accreditation is akin to hiring most teaching staff without being vetted by a quality agency and it jeopardises the viability of the accreditation requirement for permanent positions: there will likely be pressure to give temporary lecturers employment stability one way or another, if they fail to get accredited for a permanent category.

Catalonia has shown that it can make the most of home rule to build a leading university system in Spain and at a good international standard. Therefore, Madrid’s pragmatic, rational strategy should be to allow the Catalan government to continue as now and even give it the same powers that Scotland enjoys, whilst encouraging the other regional governments to follow suit. Unfortunately, the proposed new LOU that is in the cards appears to go in the opposite direction. It would be wise to reconsider it.